By Alix Ramsay
It was clear as soon as he went to the lav that there was something wrong. Roger Federer, like the Queen, does not go to the lav (he probably doesn’t carry cash, either, just like Her Maj); perfect in every way, his bladder control is the stuff of legend and no matter how long the match or how difficult the conditions, he can hold it.
But as Ernests Gulbis took a two-sets-to-one lead over the Mighty One in the fourth round on Sunday, Fed headed straight for the gents. This was not good. This really was not good.
This was not how it was supposed to have played out. Fed had been leading by a set and a break; he had two set points; he was about to take total control of the match. Then he went and thumped an overhead right back at Ernie and Latvia’s favourite son walloped it straight back for a clean winner. Suddenly the match turned on its head. Fed lost the next four points and with them his lead and within a matter of minutes he had been dragged into a tiebreak and was taking a pasting.
As the third set ran away from him, he needed to find his majestic superpowers, his inner oneness – perhaps he had left them in the little boys’ room? Best go and look. Alas, all he found there was a line judge watching his every move (and that must put a chap off as he goes to perform) and a rumpled roller towel. Sure enough, he managed to come back in the fourth set but when he was getting ready to serve for it at 5-2, Ernie took a lengthy medical time out to help his tightening hamstring and from that point on, Fed was never the same again. By the fifth set, he was toast.
“I went through the same thing against Tursunov, you know,” Federer said glumly. “So if the rules allow you to do that, you know, what can you do? There is nothing much. It’s definitely something that hasn’t happened very often against me: back‑to‑back matches, they leave the court, go for treatment and then come back. You don’t know what they were doing. Must be lower back or thigh or groin or something like that, because the rest they have to do on the court.
“That’s part of the game, you know. In the past I guess it’s been abused much more than today, but still, what can you tell? He didn’t look hurt in any way. But if you can use it, you know, might as well do it.”
Fed wasn’t really spoiling for a fight – he had about as much fire and passion in his press conference as he had in the fifth set. He had been beaten by a fired up Ernie who knew that this was his moment and all he had to do was seize it and by his own inability to cope with the situation. The more Ernie came at him, the more Fed fumed. He swore at the crowd for daring to make so much noise; he muttered and grumbled. And then he lost 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
By contrast, Ernie was a model of decorum. OK, one racquet bit the dust but, as he was the first to admit, that was nothing. Knowing that the Paris crowd takes no prisoners, he was minding his Ps and Qs as much as he could. One queried line call and they would have been baying for his blood, especially as he was playing the darling of the Court Philippe Chatrier. That crowd has even given Rafa a hard time when he is playing Rodge.
“If you play Roger wherever in the world, the crowd is going to be against you,” Ernie said. “That’s just what you have to take.
“I know how Paris crowd can get, you know, but I was trying not to show too much emotion except one broken racquet, but one is nothing for me. So I tried not to give them too much things to whistle about. It was important for me was in the fifth set to get an early break, because if it would get tight, you know, the crowd can push you down.”
As for smashing his racquet, that was only to be expected – and he did give the mangled remains to one of the kids sitting in the crowd. Not only did he need to let off a little steam, he also had to fulfill a lifetime goal.
“I have to respect every court, you know,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “I have to break at least one racquet on every court of the world. Otherwise if I would show too much disrespect to Paris centre court and I cannot allow this to myself. I just had to do it.”
It was Ernie’s best win, he thought. Not only had he beaten the Mighty One (he had done that before), but he had done it over five sets. This was no fluke; this was a display of grit, determination and some outlandish shot-making that silenced the crowd and left Federer flatfooted. It was the kind of defeat that Fed wanted to forget and, announcing that, mentally, he had already moved on to the grass court season, he fessed up that he had just been done over by the better man on the day.
“I think when you go deep in a fifth set or in a match,” he explained, “the margins are so small both sides that not necessarily always the fitter guy who wins or always necessarily the better player wins. You just have to create chances, and he did that definitely better in the fifth today than me.”
So now we know: when Roger goes to the loo, the earth’s axis is about to tilt. Blimey, imagine what might happen if the Queen went for a wee…